Wednesday, April 19, 2006

On Democrats as the Party of Self-Interest

By a series of unfortunate events, I found myself at the Daily Kos blog today. The post which provoked these ruminations is an article from the American Prospect, Michael Tomasky's Party in Search of a Notion. In light of GOP weakness, Tomasky attempts to write a story for a future Democratic party candidate, a story structured around the neglected theme of the common good.

I repeat key passages below:

"To seize this moment, the Democrats need to think differently -- to stop focusing on their grab bag of small-bore proposals that so often seek not to offend and that accept conservative terms of debate. And to do that, they need to begin by looking to their history, for in that history there is an idea about liberal governance that amounts to more than the million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics that has recently come under deserved scrutiny and that can clearly offer the most compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era."

"...liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.

This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest."

"...this idea of citizens sacrificing for and participating in the creation of a common good has a name: civic republicanism."

"Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, until it washed up on the bone-strewn beaches of Vietnam and New Left–driven atomization, fit the paradigm, too."

"At bottom, today’s Democrats from Baucus to Waters are united in only two beliefs, and they demand that American citizens believe in only two things: diversity and rights."

His essay is an attempt to build a Fusionism of the Left, like the libertarian-fiscal-traditionalist conservative alliance which brought Reagan and Bush to power. Tomasky looks to the New Deal as the high watermark of his civic republicanism, but he claims this status quo was, for good reasons, overthrown by New Left activists. Nevertheless, he thinks it is time for the Democrats to sideline the graying New Lefties and revive the rhetoric of the old Democrat hegemony. Softening individualist habits while encouraging self-sacrifice for the common good, mixed with a hearty dash of national solidarity are his main ingredients in the recipe for a Democratic victory.

Mainly because of the power of the libertine wing of the Democrats, I doubt it the ingredients will even make it into the pot. One can't credibly diminish radical individualism while at the same time nursing the (unaborted) children of the Sexual Revolution. The party's main talking points in the marriage debate include the individualistic non-argument "what's it matter to you if two or more x's get hitched?" Abortion rights are justified by focusing upon the autonomy and immediate self-interest of the mother. Grafting the common good onto its party platform will likely result in a dead chimera.

Speaking of the House Republicans, Tomasky writes: "The time is right, they said; let’s scuttle these racial preferences... Corporate leaders said, well, we’ve spent a lot of time (and money) developing diversity policies, and they’re working rather nicely." Diversity itself is a tool of the corporate state, both as a marketing tool and as a symbol of forward-thinking social responsibilty. Even a would-be left-populist movement can't fulminate against corporations when they're backing the favorite causes of the grassroots left.

This is not to say that the Republicans win the common good promotional merit badge by default. The Libertarian wing, mouthing Hayek's caricature of the idea of the common good as the first step on the road to serfdom, has damaged the ability of the GOP to think, much less to speak, in terms of the common good. Then there are the fiscal Republicans, who lean towards an excessively economic ideal of the common good. Even the pro-life movement can speak fluently only in the debilitating dialect of rights-talk.

Should the common good become the unlikely topic of national debate, the neo-federalists among the Republicans might serve a purpose. Some common goods, especially those best secured at the state level, aren't themselves universal enough to make it onto the national scene. Encouraging a space for state-level action could provide a pathway to the lands of limited government, a land which is, like the domain of common good, quickly fading away into mythological regions.

Cross-referencing Addendum: William T. Cavanaugh argues the nation-state was never meant to secure the common good, and indeed was founded upon the rejection of that very concept.

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